A recent headline on The Huffington Post announced: “Gay Marriage: America’s Last Major Civil Rights Movement.” Halfway through the article, in a flourish of journalistic enthusiasm, the author, Bryan Wood, proclaims: “Same-sex marriage has become the latest, and possibly one of the last, battlegrounds for civil rights in America.”
Wood’s proposition is problematic for many reasons. But I want to focus on two. First, it misleadingly uses language similar to the civil rights movement of African Americans to advance its aims. In so doing it ignores the grave dissimilarities between the cultural conditions facing blacks in 1940s, 50s and 60s and homosexual activists in the 21st century.
During the civil rights era, major news journals either ignored or systematically distorted the successes of heroes such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Newsweek didn’t even print a story of the Montgomery bus boycott till five months after it happened. In the gay marriage debate, the only media caricatures are of defenders of traditional marriage: “bigots,” “Nazis,” “on the wrong side of history;” “opposed to marriage equality,” “motivated by hate,” and so on. (As an example, watch the outrageous behavior of lesbian activist Suze Orman towards Heritage Institute fellow Ryan Anderson on the Piers Morgan show from March 26th.) In the mainstream media, everything gay is lighthearted and humorous, young and attractive, tolerant and far-sighted. Defenders of traditional marriage have been cast in the image of Archie Bunker for two decades.
Moreover, when M.L. King, Jr. led demonstrations in Birmingham in the summer of ‘62, he and his supporters were greeted to billy clubs, K-9 dogs, and fire hoses by the unsympathetic police. When defenders of traditional marriage demonstrate, they are subject to vile language and unseemly gyrations by gay-rights activists, while the good police stand by and munch their Dunkin’ Donuts.
Further, when Ole Miss was being integrated in 1962, riots broke out, hundreds were injured and several were killed. When the feds threatened to integrate the University of Alabama in ‘63, opportunist politicians such as segregationist governor George Wallace vowed pompously to block the door. In universities today, senior administrators fall over one another to affirm gay rights, gay pride events, gay student organizations, gay socials, etc. Campus journalists are routinely vilified for writing pro-marriage editorials. Pro-marriage speakers are treated disrespectfully. Traditionally minded student organizations are defunded or not allowed on campus. Candidates for faculty positions are subjected to humiliating litmus tests based on their views of homosexuality.
Where’s the parity? Although homosexual young people are still sometimes tragically subject to mockery and abuse, anyone who thinks the persecutory winds are blowing steadily in the direction of homosexuals hasn’t stepped outside recently.
Second, Wood claims that homosexuals have a “right” to marry. Given the intensity of emotions wrapped up in this issue, to deny this is likely to arouse resentment or anger. And I have no desire to wound anyone’s feelings. But to claim that a human right exists for two men or two women to marry is just wrong. Rights are grounded in intelligible claims of what’s due to persons. And due-ness is assessed in virtue (at very least) of what’s a real alternative for choice. So although one might argue that homosexuals have a right to certain kinds of civil benefits, we can no more argue they have a right to marriage than I can argue I have a right to gestate children. Marriage is a particular kind of human friendship, one founded on the mutually and comprehensively self-giving commitment of partners who share bodily complementarity. Marriage can only be chosen by a man and a woman.
Now, of course, opportunist politicians and judges can step in and redefine marriage to mean something other than it’s meant by all cultures for all time. They can negate the centrality of bodily complementarity, procreation and natural family, and redefine marriage as any stable erotic relationship between two consenting adults. But if we concede this type of Orwellian power to change meaning, then the possibilities for future redefinition remain open-ended. Under the chisel of public opinion, marriage can and will be extended—don’t you doubt it—beyond two persons, beyond adults, and beyond humans. If we think otherwise, we’re naïve.
So the debate is not really about the meaning of marriage as it’s existed—for all must concede that in the judgment of the dead marriage is as I’ve described it—but about redefining marriage to mean something other than it’s meant. We go from defining it as an institution of committed persons civilly privileged in virtue of its aptness for the generation of children to a union of adult persons civilly privileged in virtue merely of its erotic character. The traditional definition was justified under law not on the basis of any kind of animus towards homosexual persons (whether or not animus may have existed in society), but because of the importance of children to the community and the benefit to children of stable unions. The community extends financial and other benefits and immunities to traditional marriage, not because it judges the type of sex to be morally superior, but because of the salient fact that this type of sexual union, as grounded on bodily complementarity, is apt for the generation of children. Children are vulnerable. This vulnerability can be decreased if the stability of their parents’ unions is strengthened. Legal marriage and the benefits it bestows facilitate stability.
There is no arbitrary discrimination in this. And society certainly has the right to define the unions that it calls marriage in terms of their relevance for childbearing. Other unions may cry foul, “we want the same benefits.” But the cry cannot claim to be grounded on the requirements of distributive justice, that is, on a fair distribution of civil benefits and burdens in lieu of equivalent starting points. The respective starting points of gay and traditional unions are not equivalent, at least not in terms of the central criterion used till now to designate unions as marriage and extend benefits, namely, the aptness of the unions for generating children.
Society may indeed sanction the redefinition of marriage to negate the relevance of bodily complementarity. But upon what basis can one rationally argue that the redefinition is a human right, an obligation of justice, that if we don’t go there we (the community) ignore an ethical laceration in the body politic (as we do by ignoring the right-to-life of the unborn), that reason, decency and good will cry out for this redefinition? At best we can call it a risky social experiment, at worst a betrayal of nature, tradition, reason and revelation. But a right?